The midshipman blurted out his question, interrupting a class discussion about tolerance of other cultures in the early days of Islam.
"When did this fanaticism start?" asked John Kennedy, a Naval Academy senior. "Like when Iran's president says the Holocaust never happened or wants to nuke Israel and wipe it off the map?"
The 22-year-old senior could not have picked a better man to ask.
When Islamic revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979, John W. Limbert Jr. was there, a middle-ranking diplomat who, unlike any of the CIA operatives in his company, spoke fluent Persian. He and the 52 others taken hostage by the revolutionaries were released Jan. 20, 1981, after more than 14 months in captivity.
Twenty-six years later, Limbert has come to the Naval Academy - where he taught briefly as a foreign service officer after his release - to help teach the language and culture of world hot spots. Academy administrators hope his effort, coupled with interdisciplinary centers that focus on various regions of the world, will create an educational niche strong enough to rival the school's renown in engineering.
William Miller, the academy's academic dean, said Limbert is a "perfect role model and cultural guide for today's midshipmen."
Miller noted the former diplomat's long list of stops "on the leading edge of U.S. foreign policy": professor, diplomat and hostage in Iran; U.S. embassy worker in Sudan, Algeria, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; U.S. ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania; senior civilian in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, where he helped restore the looted museum; and dean of the Foreign Language Institute's School of Language Studies.
"John's the real deal," Miller said.
Limbert retired last April after 33 years in the Foreign Service and was hired to lead the academy's transformation effort last semester, one of a handful of notable faculty members hired in the past year that include Brannon Wheeler, a Middle East scholar who heads an interdisciplinary center on the region; Atlantic Monthly correspondent Robert Kaplan, now a visiting political science professor; and William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Following the Pentagon's lead in recommitting resources to cultural training, the Annapolis military college has expanded exchange opportunities for midshipmen in more than a dozen countries, added majors in Chinese and Arabic and has hired instructors to teach Japanese, Arabic, Chinese and Russian.
To explain "force transformation," the military term for the academy effort he's leading, Limbert recalled some footage he saw on CNN after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. U.S. troops had pushed their way to Najaf, one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam, home to a shrine for the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, and encountered a crowd chanting things the soldiers obviously did not understand.
"Some young lieutenant or captain had the smarts to figure out that the crowd wasn't there to attack or threaten his men, but to keep them away from the holy shrine," Limbert said. "As soon as he realized that, he ordered his men to put down their weapons and fall back. That captain deserves some incredible decoration, because this could have been a disastrous moment."
The midshipmen in his class about Iran say he seldom speaks about his time as a hostage, and they are hesitant to ask, although some have their hopes up that he will discuss it in a class next month. Still, he answers many probing questions from students eager to understand a country that President Bush, in his State of the Union address last week, said "represses its people, pursues weapons of mass destruction and supports terror."
Many of the pictures and mementos in his sparsely decorated office depict those 14 months of captivity: the congressional resolution to honor his safe return, a close-up of Lincoln's face in the Washington memorial, with a tear about to fall from the left eye, noting the deaths of eight soldiers who lost their lives in a failed rescue mission and a travel itinerary issued on one of the occasions they were almost released, complete with a bureaucratic line that still makes him chuckle: "Use of a foreign flag airline authorized from Tehran."
Limbert has spoken frankly and astutely about his time as a hostage on many occasions since, most recently in a new book by journalist Mark Bowden. In Guests of the Ayatollah, Bowden writes that Limbert often spoke to his guards during that time to alleviate boredom, and was surprised by how the anti-Americanism that he had witnessed as a Peace Corps volunteer and later professor there had finally become directed at him as an individual.
The son of a U.S. Agency for International Development worker, Limbert loved Iran as much as any American, Bowden writes, eventually marrying an Iranian and having a son and daughter there.
And even now, with tensions between the two countries at a new high, he is defensive about the land and its people, baffled about how such an old civilization with traditions of art, tolerance and justice has become synonymous with fanaticism and terrorism.
"The point is really this: Those events of 1979, although no one in the class was alive when it happened, really shapes and explains a lot of what U.S. officials say when they talk about Iran," said Limbert, 63. "What I want them to know is that the Iranians did not wake up yesterday and decide that they wanted to be a part of the Axis of Evil in order to bedevil the U.S. and our friends.
"There's a lot of history and a lot of events that have gone on, and if these young people have to deal in the Middle East in their careers, I want them to understand what went into this problem. If they know why it is the way it is, what the fault lines are, what the grievances are, it's going to help them do their job a lot better."
That's what Limbert was trying to do Thursday in his class, instructing the Mids about the Badr Brigade, a prominent Iraqi Shiite militia that's supported by Iran, as well as how quickly Islam became politicized after its founding, compared to Christianity.
At that moment, Midshipman Kennedy interrupted, needing to know the roots of our current problems, needing to know "When did this fanaticism start?"
Limbert paused, staring out into the class with small, dark-brown eyes that look like black slits from far away, and calmly explained that the question has no simple answer.
He noted other times in history when extremism gripped civilized people, such as the killings of Armenians by Turks early in the last century.
Fanaticism, he said, can break out in any society and culture at any time.
"Human beings are human beings," he said.